Fast forward to 1980. With little to do on the ship, I spent quite a bit of time on the bridge, staring out at the ocean. This never ceased to amaze me. The changing seas, the movement of the ship, and things like seabirds and dolphins playing in our bow wave made for a never-ending source of entertainment. It was the night, however, that produced a reverie and memories for a lifetime. The prior year had been the most difficult of my life. The internship year I had just finished was demanding and all-consuming. I had been accepted into a surgery residency at the Naval Hospital in Oakland, CA and had that to look forward to. My personal life was in shambles with a failed marriage to a medical school classmate and I knew going home I faced the prospect of a divorce, something I had never imagined. I knew from the start that the marriage was a mistake and acutely felt the pain of failing to step back from making the vow I had made. It was the greatest failure of my life to that point.
Standing on the bridge for hours at night, I could forget that for a while. Unlike even the limited light from the lodge in the Swiss Alps, at night the Wabash sailed with almost no lights. Even the lights on the bridge were red, so as not to interfere with night vision. Thousands of miles from any land, there was almost no dust in the air. As a result, the air was clearer than I had ever seen it. I could see stars clearly all the way to the horizon, something not possible even in the mountains. I watched the sky for hours on end. It was mesmerizing. I could see satellites move across the sky, saw multiple, spectacular meteor shows, was able to identify planets thanks to some of the officers on the bridge more familiar with the night sky, and stars beyond counting twinkling more brightly than I ever imagined. To say this was therapeutic to my soul does not do justice to the peace and calm that these hours brought. I will remember them as long as my memory lasts.
It has been nearly forty-three years since those days and I have never repeated this experience. In our modern society, we are so used to the limited view of the skies nearly everywhere, that we forget this not all there is. When was the last time you got away from civilization, even for a day, and felt awe? We have lost the sense of awe, the true meaning of the word, and appreciation for the gift that is ours. As a physician I cannot help but believe that this loss has impacted our society and the health of people in dramatically adverse ways. We are fatter than ever, sicker than ever, more anxious than ever, and ever more reliant on modern science to fix us or at least prolong our otherwise diminished lives. We live in a cacophony of manmade sound and inescapable light pollution.
It was none other than Hippocrates who said, “Nature itself is the best physician.” I can attest to that after 45 years practicing medicine. Physicians can diagnose, give medications, and perform surgery, but if the patient does not have an intact immune system and innate ability to heal, all our efforts are futile. I believe one of the best prescriptions for what ails us as a society, as well as a race, is a return to nature. We are not overlords or masters of our planet. We are stewards, responsible for managing a priceless, irreplaceable gift. We need to remember that.
Richard T. Bosshardt, MD, FACS